Among your Christmas gifts from the U.S. Senate this year, there may well be this one: tax uncertainty. Some 15.4 million Americans, including 1.6 million New Yorkers, can expect to start the year uncertain what tax system they must use to calculate the 2006 taxes. This thanks to Senate inability to complete a temporary fix for the Alternative Minimum Tax.
Senate inability to enact a fix by year's end may not mean much, in the long run. The job still can and should get done retroactively in January. Congressmen know they can't not fix the AMT and hope to keep their jobs. But this still should have sailed through. As such, the failure demonstrates Senate lack of will and leadership. House Republicans, led by bill sponsor Rep. Thomas M. Reynolds, tried to make it easier on senators by passing a stand-alone extension of the impact-limiting annual patch Congress has been applying to AMT rules. But the Senate won't extract that needed measure from the wider-ranging debate over tax cuts in its broader tax policy bill. Until the Senate passes that measure and the two houses hammer out a joint version to send to the president, uncertainty continues.
Even the House measure was a cop-out, albeit a needed one. Congress needs lasting reform of the tax, instituted to keep the rich from abusing tax shelters, but now reaching deeply into the middle class. The most glaring error in the 1969 law was failure to index AMT-triggering income levels to inflation, so millions more average Americans will pay the higher alternative tax unless fixes are made or the annual temporary "patches" keep coming.